Some school board members who voted to rescind a 4-month-old ethics and conflict-of-interest policy say they were unaware what they were approving and want it reinstated.
The Fort Worth school district’s Board Policy Committee is expected to revisit the matter at a meeting this week, perhaps as early as Thursday.
The six-page policy includes strict rules regarding campaign contributions from entities that are “financially interested in the outcome of a contract,” guidelines on what constitutes a conflict of interest for board members and their family and limitations on gifts for board members. Vendors found in violation of the policy would be subject to penalties as well.
The policy had been approved by the Fort Worth school board in April to replace a generic, one-sentence policy that had been in place since 2007.
The vote to rescind the policy came at a specially called meeting on Aug. 15 at which board members called a $750 million bond election and tax ratification election, both of which are Tuesday.
Trustee Ashley Paz, who chairs the board committee that crafted the new policy, said the bond election vote created a diversion at the board meeting.
“The perfect time to slip in something into the agenda when you don’t want anyone to know about it is when everyone is focused on something else,” Paz said. “This is something that people need to be aware of.”
The item was listed on the consent agenda and items on the consent agenda are voted on as a whole unless a board member calls for an item to be pulled or voted on separately.
During the board workshop before the meeting, board President Tobi Jackson asked trustees if they had any questions about agenda items or wanted any items pulled. No one had questions about the ethics policy.
“Anyone could have brought it to the front for discussion,” Trustee Christene Moss said.
The board voted 7-0 with one trustee abstaining. Trustee Anael Luebanos abstained, saying he did not want to vote on the consent agenda items because he was not on the board when the ethics policy was approved.
A government affairs expert said the manner in which the item was rescinded raises concerns about transparency.
“You need to read the agendas real carefully — and it’s good that they posted the item, because they have to,” said Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “If it was done in such a way that it wasn’t clear what they were voting on, then that’s not the spirit of transparency, even if they were following the letter of law. Furthermore, if some of the elected officials didn’t even know what they were voting on, how was the public supposed to follow it?”
‘Need to read the agendas carefully’
The agenda item read: “Approve First Reading and Waive Second Reading - Revision to Board Policy ... “Ethics-Conflict of Interest Disclosure.”
Exactly why the policy was rescinded is unclear, other than to “revisit what changes, if any, or needed” with a strategic goal of improving “operational effectiveness and efficiency,” according to the item, which was part of the consent agenda.
Some sources have suggested that some trustees would like to revisit the issue of campaign contributions.
Jackson put the item on the agenda, according to the school district.
Jackson did not return phone calls, Facebook messages or emails seeking comment.
Trustee Norman Robbins said he looked past the agenda item.
“I don’t think any of us realized that it was in there and that we repealed it,” Robbins said. “I wouldn’t be in favor of anything that would reduce our ethics code.”
Paz said she’s embarrassed that she didn’t see what was happening.
“I don’t think I will ever get over missing that on the agenda,” Paz said.
With the new policy rescinded, the 2007 policy is back in place. It reads: “Each Board member shall provide to the District in a timely manner information necessary for the District’s annual financial management report ...”
School boards are also subject to state ethics and conflict-of-interest laws.
Robbins said he will explore putting an item on an upcoming agenda that would reinstate the policy approved in April.
Paz, who chairs the Board Policy Committee, said she expects the policy to be reviewed by the committee at a meeting planned for Thursday. The policy committee includes trustees Moss, Sutherland and T.A. Sims.
Was it necessary?
Building transparency and accountability were the guiding themes for the creation of the Board Policy Committee in the summer of 2016, Paz said.
Paz said the policy approved in April was designed to build on mandates and policies that the state puts in place for school boards. Fort Worth school district staff and Board Policy Committee members used the Houston school district policy as a template.
“That was the one we determined would be the most comprehensive,” Paz said.
The April 25 policy, which was approved 9-0, stated that trustees must disclose campaign contributions or loans and recuse themselves from voting on contracts, agreements or “any other District transaction with an entity financially interest in the outcome of a Board proceeding, including nonprofit organizations, if the entity and its related officers, key employees, and/or other authorized representatives or agents have provided campaign contributions or loans to the Board member during the preceding 12 month period in excess of $2,000.”
The policy also addressed gifts to trustees, placing rules on gifts greater than $50 to trustees or their family members. The policy also requires trustees to self-report conflicts of interest in a disclosure report — the first of which would have been due on July 15.
No disclosure reports were turned in, according to the district.
Paz said it was unnecessary to rescind the policy.
“There were elements of the policy that could have been addressed without repealing the entire thing,” Paz said.